The gushing regarding “all that” headphones is at a fever pitch lately, I thought as I read Arnie Nudell’s review of the Audeze LCD-X Headphones, wherein he said the LCD-X could compete with all of the very best high-end loudspeakers. By that he summarized the headphones had below 20Hz to beyond 20kHz response, very low distortion, and produced sound which seemed to be cut from a single cloth. As I had already embarked on this review and regaled in the experience of hearing the Kingsound KS-H3 headphones and M-20 headphone amplifier, my reaction was, “So what? The Kingsound headphones do that!”
I thought it would be dandy to compare the Audeze LCD-X to the Kingsound KS-H3, and though that did not transpire, I was able to secure the next best thing, the Audeze LCD-3, for a direct comparison to the Kingsound combo, which will be discussed shortly.
But first, some background
The Kingsound M-20 is an OTL (output transformerless) tube amplifier specifically designed to drive the low impedance KS-H3 electrostatic headphones. The fixed cable from the phones to the amp has the five pin configuration known to STAX headphones. A headphone extension cable that works with the Kingsound KS-H3 with either copper or silver OFC is available from STAX.
The form factor of the M-20 amp reminds me of the slim chassis Marantz or Krell amps, except for the removable black wire cage atop the Kingsound amplifier. The brushed aluminum faceplate features a solitary black VOLUME dial, and the headphone jack. At the rear resides the 15A IEC socket with the expected fuse compartment, the illuminated ON/OFF rocker switch and the L/R RCA outputs.
The tube complement is, from front to rear, a pair of 12Ax7, a pair of 6BQ5, and a single rectifier 6V6 to control the bias voltage. Upgrade tube sets are available, and my understanding is that the most rewarding tube to change is the rectifier. Feedback on message boards suggest the Gold Lion brand is worthwhile, but I would explore other brands as well, as I have found there to be no direct correlation between tube brands and an audiophile’s preferences.
Further, you will want to get to the really good stuff by reading my upcoming experiences with discrete opamp rolling the Eastern Electric Minimax DSD DAC Supreme. Tube rollings are child’s play in comparison to the benefit of swapping discrete opamps. If you jack up the performance of the DAC, the headphone amp goes along for the ride. For less than the price of the set of Gold Lion tubes one can secure a set of discrete opamps from Burson, DEXA or newcomer Sparkos Labs. For twice the price of the tubes you can secure all three brands of discrete opamps and leverage their strengths to customize the DAC. The Eastern Electric is not the only DAC to benefit from these products. For serious listeners this should be a mandatory upgrade for DACs with socketed opamps. If you get all three sets you can tune the headphone experience exquisitely, having many options as opposed to one with a set of tubes. This is something you will be very happy you explored.
Wearing the KS-H3
As with the review of the Kingsound King III ESL once again I need to address an anomaly, albeit this time one of seemingly less importance than the construction of the speaker. Kingsound has labeled the headphones “KS-H3” and every reviewer I’ve seen work with them has referred to them as such, but the headphones themselves are labeled “H-03”. Kingsound at times moves fluidly with changes to products and at other times renames products readily.
Putting on the Kingsound KS-H3 headphones, the soft rim of the ear cup assembly felt so large as to be encroaching upon my eye. It felt enormous, cavernous for headphones. In an age when earbuds are a man-on-the-move’s best friend, this was like being placed in a symphony hall, my ears calling out to the boundaries of the headphones, “Helllloooooo,” and the cavity responding, “Whaaaat?” It’s an auditory wide-open-spaces enclosure blissfully free of some major annoyances of headphones – the tight fit atop the head, the pressure against the ear, the smothering eardrum feel. For all the size of the KS-H3 it is worn lightly, not quite a light as air fit, but pretty doggone close!
Then again, I have said many times that ear buds are the equivalent of placing a sonic jackhammer into the ear. Imagine how a laser is focusing light such that it can be amplified and the appropriate wavelength chosen and focused to cut steel! Now, consider the headphone, directing a myriad of frequencies with laser-like precision directly at the tympanum. Nah, not my idea of a great way to extend hearing into my golden ears. I know it is the listening level that makes the critical difference, but I simply prefer the feel of a phone to a bud.
Did I mention the soft earpieces of the Kingsound KS-H3: They sit so lightly about the ear and are so smooth to the touch that an hour and a half later they don’t feel irritating at all? In a warm room they do trap some body heat from the skin and it feels a tad tropical inside the ear cup ecosphere. It could be less comfortable to wear them three or four hours for that reason, however, shorter listening sessions present no annoyance. The isolated headband lifts the set well off the head such that there is no stress felt upon the skull. In terms of the lightness and softness of its fit, the KS-H3 outperforms the bulk of higher end headphones on the market.
The Kingsound KS-H3 is finished with an attractive aluminum perforated shell that has a thin red band running along its circumference. The cable is fixed; no upgrades are possible to this wiring as it is designed to be used only with the M-20 amp. The philosophy is somewhat akin to active speakers; no choice, no muss, no fuss. While flexibility in pairing other amps and cables might be desirable, it is not desirable to have a mismatch between the outputs of a headphone amp attempting to drive a pair of ESL headphones. Kingsound worked from the premise that a custom amp best suited for the phones would be an appropriate solution. Given the performance of the pairing it is hard to question that philosophy.
The M-20’s appearance seems to straddle the best aspects of vintage and contemporary amp design. The elongated rectangular chassis sits low, and its narrow footprint carries a sensibility of space ergonomics. The top perforated metal tube protector cage can be removed by slightly squeezing the sides of the cage. The black, featureless volume control knob free from detents operates smoothly. To the right, is the proprietary jack for the headphones with a symbol of a headset over it.
On the back of the amp is the single set of sturdy gold plated RCA input jacks, an illuminated rocker ON/OFF switch, and the receptacle for the 15A IEC power cord. I like the illuminated power switch as instantly I can tell when making signal connections whether the unit is off. I wish more audiophile component companies would follow suit, as middle aged eyes get tired of straining in dimly lit corners to spy small “O” and “-“ symbols on buttons.
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